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Aereo’s Rocky Path Ahead

Where the law aims to draw a bright line between what is permissible and what is not, advances in technology often blur that line, creating factual scenarios that couldn’t have existed when the law was drafted. In the case of Aereo’s technology, the mistake many are making is to assume that technology doesn’t just blur the line, but erases it entirely. Courts, however, are remarkably astute at locating that faded line and darkening it rather than just throwing up their hands and saying “Congress didn’t specifically address this technology, so you’re free to do whatever you want with it.” As Napster discovered years ago, just because a technology wasn’t envisioned by Congress when the copyright laws were drafted doesn’t exempt it from their application.

In the proceeding now pending before the Supreme Court, the Court is looking only at the narrow issue of whether the Second Circuit erred in declining to issue an injunction against Aereo’s service on the grounds that Aereo’s transmissions are not “public performances” of broadcast programs. While the details of this debate are quite nuanced, a ruling that Aereo is engaged in transmitting public performances would be the judicial equivalent of a torpedo amidships; Aereo might not sink immediately, but it would start taking on water fast. Aereo’s argument against such a finding is that its system of thousands of antennas paired with thousands of hard drives allows it to engage in thousands of private transmissions, but no transmissions to “the public” triggering copyright liability.

From a policy standpoint, there is little doubt that Congress never intended to bless such an arbitrary distinction, or the use of technological workarounds that serve no purpose but to try to circumvent copyright laws. To some extent, Aereo doesn’t seem to deny this, but argues that Congress left a tiny opening in the law that the Second Circuit then stretched into a man-size opening in the Cablevision case, and Aereo is just stepping through that doorway.

Tellingly, however, the relevant aspects of copyright law have not changed much in recent years, and it was only the Second Circuit’s actions that created a “loophole” where none existed before. As Judge Chin made clear in his Second Circuit dissents, creating the Aereo loophole requires such a tortured reading of the law that “pinhole” is a more accurate description than “loophole”. Because the Supreme Court is not bound by Second Circuit decisions, however, it could well resolve the issue in favor of broadcasters without breaking a sweat.

Lost in the furor over what the Supreme Court will do though, is the fact that Aereo has a lot more at stake at this stage than broadcasters. While a sufficiently adverse ruling by the Supreme Court could be fatal to Aereo, a ruling favorable to Aereo would still leave a rocky path ahead, with many other obstacles to be traversed. As just one example, what if trial discovery reveals that the Aereo architecture doesn’t quite live up to the “one subscriber, one antenna” approach upon which Aereo has staked its legal survival?

Similarly, while the current debate at the Supreme Court is focused on the legality of Aereo’s transmissions to subscribers, missing from the public debate has been much discussion of the legality of Aereo’s copying of broadcast programs to transmit. Aereo’s fundamental legal argument in that regard has been that if a consumer can legally make a home copy, then they should be able to hire Aereo to do it for them. But consider the following example: as a listener, you can record radio broadcasts, including the music in them, and keep those copies for your personal, noncommercial use. Knowing this, I create a company with the ability to receive all local radio stations using sophisticated signal analysis software and databases that can instantly recognize any song and, upon request, copy that song onto a hard drive. I then solicit subscribers, who send me their requested playlists, and for a fee, my sophisticated equipment and full-time employees can automatically record each requested song onto the hard drive I have assigned to a particular subscriber. The subscriber can then access that music for use on home computers and stereos, or pay me an additional fee to convert all of “their” files into MP3, FLAC, or other useful file formats so that the music can be downloaded to any of the subscriber’s consumer devices, including tablets, smartphones, or home music servers.

In an Aereo world, all I’ve done is accomplish what a radio listener (with very expensive and sophisticated monitoring equipment and software) could have done on their own, so my music service is completely legitimate and copyright compliant. Of course, why stop there? Why not sell subscribers a blank CD and then charge them a fee for recording “their” music on it? We’ve just automated the process for subscribers to create their own “home” mix tapes! It’s Pandora without all those pesky ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and record company royalties. In the real world, however, does anyone think this “Audio Aereo” service would survive even the most cursory of legal challenges? Video Aereo may fare no better.

While advocates of Aereo will cite the Second Circuit’s Cablevision decision as the guiding legal precedent for Aereo’s operations, the true wellspring of Aereo is the Supreme Court’s 1984 Sony Betamax decision. In a narrow 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that home recording of television programming constituted a “fair use” under copyright law, launching the age of home video recording. The Second Circuit’s contribution in Cablevision was to state that the location of a viewer’s recording device is unimportant, clearing the way for cable subscribers to “rent” a DVR located at the cable headend from their cable provider while retaining the fair use status of “home” recording.

In developing a Rube Goldberg service whose complexity serves no purpose other than seeking to sidestep copyright law, Aereo has pushed the Second Circuit’s logic past the breaking point. In Cablevision, the subscriber had paid for the content, and the cable operator had paid for the right to retransmit that content. It was therefore not difficult for the Second Circuit to conclude, in effect, “if everyone in the process has been compensated, and it doesn’t undercut the market for the content, then what’s the harm of letting a subscriber locate their DVR at the cable headend rather than in the subscriber’s house? Have we really altered the activity to such an extent that recording program content is no longer the fair use blessed by the Supreme Court in Sony Betamax?”
And this is where a fundamental flaw in Aereo’s legal position emerges. The test is not whether a member of the public can copy a program for their own home viewing and call it fair use; the test is whether Aereo copying a program for that subscriber still qualifies as a fair use under copyright doctrine. Fair use analysis considers four factors: (1) the commercial or nonprofit nature of the activity; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use on the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. The Supreme Court’s decision in Sony Betamax focused on the first and fourth factors, finding that individuals recording programs for time-shifting is a noncommercial activity, and that time-shifting is unlikely to undercut the market for the copyrighted work. The Supreme Court therefore found that home taping qualifies as fair use.

In contrast, Aereo’s copying of broadcast programming (even at a subscriber’s behest) is decidedly not a “noncommercial activity”, and even the Second Circuit decision affirming the denial of an injunction against Aereo did not disagree with the district court’s finding that Aereo would cause irreparable harm to broadcasters. That irreparable harm arises from undercutting the market for the copied programming. In other words, the two factors that principally led the Supreme Court to bless home taping as a fair use in Sony Betamax produce the opposite result when applied to Aereo. Justice Stevens’ majority decision in Sony Betamax is instructive in this regard. He wrote that “If the Betamax were used to make copies for a commercial or profitmaking purpose, such use would presumptively be unfair,” and “every commercial use of copyrighted material is presumptively an unfair exploitation of the monopoly privilege that belongs to the owner of the copyright….” The Aereo service is clearly a “commercial use of copyrighted material” that undercuts the market for that material. By the very decision that allows home recording to exist as a fair use under copyright law, “home” recordings made by Aereo appear to fall outside that protection, and Aereo would not be able to avail itself of the fair use defense in making copies of broadcast programming.

Which means that if the Supreme Court rules against Aereo on the transmission issue, the Aereo story could come to a relatively abrupt end, but if it doesn’t, Aereo still faces serious legal hurdles ahead. In either case, the Supreme Court’s decision on the transmission issue is not likely to be the “one and done” referendum that Aereo might have hoped for. Stated differently, if the Supreme Court decision does turn out to be “one and done,” it will be Aereo that is done.